Socialists again

Print edition : April 11, 2008

Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero in Madrid on March 9.-ALESSANDRO BIANCHI/REUTERS

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero wins the elections convincingly and emerges, in his second term, as a leader in his own right.

THEY called him the accidental Prime Minister; the compromise candidate, chosen by consensus, who did not deserve to lead the nation; the man whose job fell into his lap because of the terrifying explosions that rocked Madrid three days before the elections and claimed almost 200 lives. He had to thank the bloodied hands of Al Qaeda for his election, they said, and the arrogance and stupidity of the outgoing conservative government, which wrongly accused the Basque separatist organisation (ETA) for the attacks.

That was in 2004, and the man in question was the 42-year-old untried and untested Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, whom the conservatives derided as Bambi, or baby face for his youthful good looks, lambent eyes and dimpled smile.

But on March 9, Zapatero wiped the derision off his opponents faces, winning convincingly in the legislative polls and proving beyond doubt that he is a leader in his own right, with a vision for Spain that he is determined to translate into reality.

This time, too, the shadow of terrorism marred the elections. On March 7, an unidentified gunman repeatedly shot Isaias Carrasco, a former socialist Municipal Councillor, at point-blank range in the northern Basque town of Mondragon. Isaias Carrasco died shortly after in the arms of his wife and daughter. The killing was blamed on ETA.

On the eve of the elections, Isaias Carrascos coffin was carried through the streets as people came out in their thousands to protest against ETAs continued campaign of terror. In an emotional farewell to her father, 20-year-old Sandra Carrasco called on her countrymen to vote en masse. Those who want to show solidarity with my father and our pain should turn out and vote on Sunday [March 9] to tell the assailants that we are going to win, Sandra Carrasco told hundreds of people in front of the Mondragon town hall. Her appeal did not fall on deaf ears. Despite fears of another attack, the voter turnout was almost as high as in 2004 74 per cent.The high turnout went in favour of Zapatero, who won a comfortable second term although he failed to get an absolute majority. For the past four years, the Spanish Right led by Mariano Rajoy of the conservative Popular Party (P.P.) had harped on how the socialists had stolen their election. Between March 2004 and March this year, the conservatives played a game of obstruction and vilification, challenging the government every step of the way, opposing even the most sensible and pragmatic proposals of the government.

When the results rolled in on March 9, the conservatives, although bettering their score (up from 148 to 154 seats in the 350-seat Parliament), failed to emerge as the single largest party. The Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) led by Zapatero won 169 seats (up from 164), just seven seats shy of an absolute majority.

It was partly this bad loser attitude that cost them the election. That and the fact that under Rajoy the P.P. failed to project itself as a modern, forward-looking, liberal right-wing party which was prepared to reopen old wounds and examine the painful Franco era. They attacked the new law on immigration. They made an alliance with the most regressive forces in the Catholic Church; failed to cash in on moderate conservative figures within their own ranks, such as Madrid Mayor Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon; and ran a counter-productive campaign, insisting that immigration had become a problem, Miguel Angel Aguilar, a columnist for the El Pais and Vanguardia newspapers told Frontline.

He added: Immigration is not a problem at least not yet. As for accusing the government of being soft on terrorism and the Basque separatists, everyone knows that the only way out of the Basque problem is through negotiation. Every single Spanish government, including that of right-wing Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, has negotiated with the Basques. The voters know that.

Mariano Rajoy, Opposition leader and the Popular Partys presidential candidate.-MIGUEL VIDAL/REUTERS

But in refraining from giving Zapatero an absolute majority, thereby denying him a full, free rein, the electorate has sent another kind of message: while they support the societal reforms he has introduced (bringing home Spanish troops from Iraq, liberalising divorce laws, legislating in favour of women and gays, legalising same-sex marriages, reducing the power of the Catholic Church, and re-examining Spains past under the Franco dictatorship, which is a deeply divisive subject), they would like him to build a national consensus around such polarising subjects rather than push through reforms relentlessly.

In many ways, that was Zapateros biggest failure the fact that he divided the country. He tried to push Spain too quickly, too sharply to the Left. In dealing with ETA, he was naive. In the beginning, he believed he could get a quick resolution to a conflict that has lasted almost half a century and claimed over 800 lives. ETA declared a unilateral ceasefire not because it was interested in peace but because it needed to regroup and re-arm. He failed to take the rest of the country along with him. He also made mistakes in the way he handled the reform on federalism, said Sylvia Desazars de Montgailhard, a professor of Hispanic Studies whose father founded one of Spains main centrist parties.

There is a move in Spain for greater autonomy to the regions. This borders on federalism. Regions such as Catalonia, one of Spains wealthiest and most influential and which suffered greatly under the Franco dictatorship, chafe under the yoke of Madrid. In the last legislature, Zapatero relied on the support of the Convergencia y Union (CiU), a strong regional party from Catalonia, and the United Left, dominated by communists.

This time, the communists have suffered a setback but Zapatero will still need the support of the CiU, which has 11 seats, and probably the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), which has six. Both have strong regional agendas that they will want to push through in exchange for their support. Zapatero has indicated that he would favour a dialogue with the PNV despite their differences. He will have to continue to rely on outside support, but it will clearly be different from the support he had in 2004. However, he will have the opportunity to continue to apply the essential elements of his programme, especially relating to social and economic issues, said Miguel Angel Aguilar.

Sociologist Ricardo Montoro said Zapatero would have no difficulty in negotiating alliances given the huge ability he showed to get his reforms passed in the last legislature. But he admitted that Zapatero did not succeed on the essential question of territorial reform (on greater autonomy to Catalonia), whose constitutionality was challenged in court.

The verdict of the Constitutional Court is expected in the coming weeks, and experts feel it might not go Zapateros way. ETA is expected to harden its stance further and the Prime Minister will need a broad national consensus on how to deal with Basque terrorism and the continued demands for a separate homeland.

Zapatero must remember he has not been given a blank cheque. Spain will be more governable, but he must correct the mistakes of the first term, said Professor Francisco Longo from Barcelonas Esade Business School.

Supporters of a slain socialist, Isaias Carrasco, hold a banner reading "For Freedom, No to ETA", at a demonstration in Mondragon, a Basque town in northern Spain, on March 10. Carrasco, a former Municipal Councillor, was killed two days before the elections, allegedly by the Basque separatist organisation.-

In a post-election speech, which was both cautious and conciliatory, Zapatero promised to make the struggle against Spains economic slowdown and the fight against ETA his new governments top priorities. The fight against ETAs terrorism must be the case in the next four years, until ETA completely disappears, he said.

After years of strong growth and falling unemployment, the international financial crisis, coupled with the end of the Spanish construction and real estate boom, has left the countrys economy dragging its heels and sparked a slight increase in joblessness. This means Zapatero will most likely go slow on his social reforms process, including a change in the countrys abortion laws, and the territorial reforms process.

The Prime Minister specifically called for a reduction in temporary work, greater integration of women in the job market, and promised that his government would raise minimum pensions while bettering employment opportunities and housing for young people. Although Zapatero heads a socialist party, he is not one given to left-wing rhetoric. Rather than defining himself as an ideologue, he says he is a pragmatist.

Not for him radical left-wing reform, such as the introduction of a 35-hour work week or the clipping of the wings of industry. He is content to allow market forces to manage the economy but feels it is imperative that a degree of equality be injected through legislation, which he describes as citizen socialism.

Indeed, Spain has taken to a globalised, ultra-market-friendly economy like a duck to water.

The programme of the modern Left is about sound economic management with a surplus on the public accounts, moderate taxes and a limited public sector together with an extension of civil and social rights. That is the programme of the future, Zapatero said. This explains why the conservatives find it so difficult to beat him.

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